The Search for the Lewis Franklin Willhite Home
One of our goals during our visit to Toronto was to find the foundation of the Lewis Franklin Willhite home and homestead area. He was my great, great grandfather. He built the home and consequently, my great grandfather and grandfather were both born there. These three generations of Willhites lived in this home but the story was that it was now “underwater” because of the building of the Toronto Reservoir in the late 50’s. The painting to the right was painted by my grandfather (Gordon Willhite) of the farm area, painted by memory many years later. After studding some maps (new and old), I realized the old access to the home was underwater but the actual home site was still above the water line. I assumed the home would have been demolished but that there had to be evidence of its foundation still in the woods. The area was now a natural area on public lands.
My interest in family research all started with this painting
Relocated to the City of Toronto before the reservoir took it, here is the home of Lewis Franklin Willhite in 2011. Now sits 1 block east of Broad St., 3 blocks north of Main St.
Journal of Lewis Franklin Willhite, October 29, 1894, with the first page of the inventory for the home.
The first big surprise was before we even got exploring. Linda informed us that the home still existed…that it had been moved around the time the lake was made. It was placed in Toronto, on one of the streets. We visited the home the next day, viewing it from the city street. The home was run down; looking like little maintenance was done in some time. (See picture on right). While looking at the home, Richard seemed to now remember that his dad did show him this home during their visits to Toronto, telling him the story. Of course he was young and didn’t retain the importance of the home at the time.
The second big surprise was that Lewis Franklin Willhite kept a daily purchase list of construction supplies for the home as he was building it. He faithfully kept a daily accounting journal and it shows him building the home the last few months of 1894. This journal is quite the find itself, being passed down through his daughter Ednah Pearl who married Gerald W Baker, then it went to their son Kenneth Baker. Unfortunately, the journal isn’t too personal, just full of detailed purchase orders over 20+ years.
So the adventure began with all of us loading into the bed of an old Dotson truck. Linda’s husband drove with her son in the passenger side. The rest of us piled in back (Linda, James, Richard, Larry, Eric, Maverick and Mckinley). We passed through a gate and through some private property Linda had received permission to go through. This saved us a lot of time and energy. I was originally expecting to hike around this property, so this allowed everyone to experience the search. We were driving an old road but the grass was several feet tall. At one point, we bottomed out and all of us had to pile out and help push the truck off a big dirt mound. We all jumped back in and continued down the trail, which now was just a grass field. This field was once used for farming but had long been abandoned. We reached the edge of the field at the forest edge. This was the old property line as well as the line between public and private land. We applied some repellent to keep the ticks off and headed into the woods to search for the foundation. Linda, being a thoughtful tour guide, visited a few weeks before trying to locate the spot to save us time. She had found what appeared as the remnants of the barn. After she got back, she had someone draw her a map of where the home was in relation to the barn. So, once we got in the woods, Linda was off and running to find the home site, which was a few hundred feet south of the barn location. As we approached the barn area, old relics started appearing everywhere: barbwire, metal stuff, just stuff that didn’t belong out in the woods. There was also more recent stuff, having floated in when the reservoir was flooding.
The barn site had a brick wall that was still standing. Much of the foundation was there as well. Nearby we found the well, covered with a bucket. Then Linda yells out she had found it. We walk over there and sure enough, the home foundation is still there. Nature is taking its time reclaiming the area as the ruins were still easy to see. There were all kinds of items strewn about, I picked up an old rusty tin cup and made it my souvenir. I’m claiming it is Lewis Franklin’s cup. After milling around for 20 minutes, we worked our way back to the truck and back out the bumpy trail. Success!
Above: You can see the foundation up at the top with everyone standing on it. This is how close the waterline comes when the lake is up. Lots of driftwood.
Toronto Reservoir from the waterline just below the foundation
Right: Old picture of family gathered around the porch
Below: USGS map showing the location of the Lewis Franklin Willhite Homesite
Everybody loaded in the truck
Driving through the grass field
Old retaining wall and fence posts
Walking to the site
Some brick work from the barn we think
1904 plat map showing F Wilhite property & home (top 2)
6 Pictures Below
I believe the 3 pictures from a distance are before the house was moved (around 1959 according to captions on the picture) while the 3 close up pictures are after the home was moved to into the town of Toronto.
Pictures from our 2011 search party